Supreme Court Reverses Lower Courts, Finding Officials Were Just in Firing Coach

Mar 28, 2008

The Iowa Supreme Court has reversed the finding of the lower courts, concluding that “a superintendent established just cause by a preponderance of the competent evidence” in recommending that a school board terminate the contract of a coach, who had a history of intimidating behavior with his players
Plaintiff Dennis Cullinan was hired in 1996 as the Ames High School Basketball Coach.
Shortly thereafter, complaints surfaced that necessitated a “Job Performance Memorandum” from the athletic director, which stated “there had been complaints Cullinan did not value all team members and had threatened or intimidated some athletes. … It also stated that Cullinan was expected to make ‘significant improvements’ in these areas during the next school year. Cullinan agreed to extend his probationary status for another year.”
The pressure on the plaintiff intensified during the 2001-2002 season, “when several new student and parent complaints were lodged regarding Cullinan’s coaching style.” A remediation plan was developed that placed certain requirements on the plaintiff, such as only making individual corrections of his players in the “presence of an assistant coach or . . . the student’s counselor or parent . . . .”
The plaintiff stayed out of trouble until December of 2003 when one of his players disobeyed an order during a game. After the contest, the plaintiff met with the player in a hallway without any one else present.
The player’s parents contacted the school’s superintendent to complain. School officials determined that he had admitted to a violation of the 2002 directive, and imposed a two-game suspension. School officials also prepared and distributed a player survey, to be completed and returned anonymously, and interviewed players and parents. It was eventually recommended that Cullinan’s coaching contract be terminated.
The plaintiff appealed. The adjudicator concluded the Board’s decision should be reversed because it was not supported by the evidence and it was unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious. The adjudicator held there was no just cause for Cullinan’s termination and ordered his coaching contract to be reinstated with back pay. The Board then filed a petition for judicial review. Following a hearing, the district court affirmed the adjudicator’s decision.
An appeals court then affirmed that ruling, leading to the appeal to the state’s highest court.
The Supreme Court began by noting that a review of a school board’s termination of a teacher’s contract is for correction of errors at law. Walthart v. Bd. of Dirs., 694 N.W.2d 740, 744 (Iowa 2005). Further, “a reviewing court must determine whether a school board’s decision is supported by a preponderance of the competent evidence in the record. Walthart, 694 N.W.2d at 744. On review of the school board’s decision, especially on issues of credibility, the court is obliged to give weight to the board’s fact findings, although it is not bound by them. Iowa Code § 279.18; Walthart, 694 N.W.2d at 745.
“Termination of a teaching or coaching contract may only be for ‘just cause.’ Iowa Code section 279.15(2). The legislature has not defined just cause; however, we have stated:
“Probably no inflexible ‘just cause’ definition we could devise would be adequate to measure the myriad of situations which may surface in future litigation. It is
sufficient here to hold that in the context of teacher fault a ‘just cause’ is one which directly or indirectly significantly and adversely affects what must be the ultimate goal of every school system: high quality education for the district’s students. It relates to job performance including leadership and role model effectiveness. It must include the concept that a school district is not married to mediocrity but may dismiss personnel who are neither performing high quality work nor improving in performance. On the other hand, ‘just cause’ cannot include reasons which are arbitrary, unfair, or generated out of some petty vendetta. Briggs v. Bd. of Dirs., 282 N.W.2d 740, 743 (Iowa 1979).
“In addition to these general principles for review of termination cases, two additional questions arise in this case. The first is what weight should be given to the hearsay evidence presented to the board, and the second is what should be the proper scope of the board’s inquiry into just cause?”
The high court found that the hearsay evidence in the instant case “bore sufficient indicia of reliability to be properly considered. The administrative reports and memoranda, while hearsay, had been drafted as part of the school administrators’ official responsibilities. The parents’ letters in the packet of May 10, 2002, were, in most cases, signed by the writers, and in all cases, the writers were identified in the letters. The writers were therefore subject to being called for questioning by Cullinan if he had doubts about the accuracy of the letters or the parents’ motivations for writing them. In addition, the basketball players themselves were all identified in the letters and subject, if Cullinan had desired, to be called as witnesses as well. The players’ statements were made under circumstances that tended to establish credibility.
“Second, these statements were often made in private to trusted officials (i.e., the guidance counselor and basketball coach), or to figures of authority (i.e., the superintendent and police officers).
“Third, the testimony from all of the hearsay witnesses seems consistent—they all recalled that, when asked if Carol Walthart knew of the student drinking, the majority of the students stated that she did. Id. Similarly in this case, the players’ statements were made by teenagers who were obviously distressed by the situation; they were made to trusted individuals, i.e., their parents; and they carried a consistent message—the players expressed the view that the coach was threatening and intimidating toward them.
“We reject the argument that the board improperly considered the hearsay evidence. The termination statute and our cases make it clear that a board may consider such evidence in making its decision, and the evidence provided in this case bore sufficient indicia of reliability to be a part of the record.”
The court also went on to find that “the board appropriately considered Cullinan’s coaching history in deciding whether to terminate his coaching contract.”
Next, the court turned to Cullinan’s arguments supporting his claim that the board did not have just cause to terminate his coaching contract, even considering his previous problems in the district.
One by one, it turned away the plaintiff’s arguments, ultimately concluding that “the superintendent established just cause by a preponderance of the competent evidence. The adjudicator (but not the reviewing courts) also reversed the board’s order on the ground it was ‘unreasonable and a clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion.’ Because we have concluded that the termination was proper on just-cause grounds, it follows that the decision was not invalid as unreasonable or an abuse of the board’s discretion. See DeShon v. Bettendorf Cmty. Sch. Dist., 284 N.W.2d 329, 332 (Iowa 1979) (‘As we find just cause for termination, it follows that the nonrenewal of petitioner’s contract was not arbitrary or an abuse of discretion.’)
“We vacate the decision of the court of appeals, reverse the judgment of the district court, and remand for a district court order affirming the decision of the board.”
Board of Directors of Ames Community School District v. Dennis Cullinan;
S. Ct. Iowa; No. 90 / 05-1059; 2/29/09
Attorneys of Record: (for appellant) Ronald L. Peeler of Ahlers & Cooney, P.C., Des Moines. (for appellee) David J. Dutton and Corey R. Lorenzen of Dutton, Braun, Staack
& Hellman, P.L.C., Waterloo.


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